Is Controversial Franklin Road Billboard Bad for Caldwell's Image? 

One study conducted years ago said 'yes'

The electronic billboard, with content chosen by the Ralph Smeed Foundation, regularly rotates political messages.

Patrick Sweeney

The electronic billboard, with content chosen by the Ralph Smeed Foundation, regularly rotates political messages.

The City of Caldwell wasted no time in trying to distance itself from a controversial billboard--a sign officials said stunts the city's growth.

The prominent sign, spotted by thousands of daily commuters speeding by on I-84, received national attention when it compared President Barack Obama to James Holmes, the accused gunman in the July 24 shooting at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., which left more than a dozen dead and many more wounded.

The Caldwell billboard, owned by the Ralph Smeed Foundation, showed a picture of Holmes alongside a quote: "Kills 12 in movie theater with assault rifle, everyone freaks out." Next to it was a photo of Obama, with the quote: "Kills thousands with his foreign policy, wins Nobel Peace Prize."

"Of the 25 years that I've lived in Caldwell, I've seen two positive messages on that sign," said Teri Ottens.

Ottens was an assistant to former Caldwell Mayor Jim Dakan in the 1990s and a member of a steering committee for a 1991 study conducted by the city's Rural Urban Development Action Team. That study dedicated an entire page of its 31-page report to what it called the city's "negative self-image."

"Because of [the billboard's] location, it seemed like it was city-endorsed," said Ottens.

In 1991, a team from the American Institute of Architects was asked to consider how Caldwell could enhance its future. According to Ottens, the controversial sign was identified as a major problem for the city.

"They sat us down and said, 'You've got a serious problem, and the problem is that sign out at the intersection of your community.'" said Ottens "They said it was 'the most detrimental thing you have to bringing businesses to downtown.'"

Maurice Clements, chairman of the Ralph Smeed Memorial Foundation, told Boise Weekly that in his estimation, high property taxes were responsible for stopping businesses from coming to Caldwell, not his sign.

"They gotta prove that," said Clements. "And they can't prove that. There's probably more businessmen that like the sign than those that don't."

Clements guessed he had received more than 1,000 phone calls and emails about the billboard, many asking him to take down the image, something he said never happened with any previous message.

"There were some people who contacted me who said they thought it was inappropriate that we would try to use that tragedy in Colorado for political purposes," said Clements.

The billboard rotates several political messages weekly, decided by a four-member board. Clements declined to name the other three panel members.

"The billboard is an integral part of the message of our foundation," he said. "And that message is to promote the concepts of liberty and freedom."

Before Smeed, perhaps Idaho's best known libertarian, died in 2010, the Idaho Libertarian Party attempted to distance itself from his billboard.

"We want to make clear that the Smeed Foundation does not consult with us by any stretch," said Rob Oates, chair of the Libertarian Party of Idaho. "As far as we know, the members of the Smeed Foundation board are not members of our party. But they haven't been very forthcoming about who those members are."

Oates said that the political message disagreeing with Obama's foreign policy was consistent with the party's beliefs but the comparison to the suspect in the Aurora shootings went too far.

"Even if the juxtaposition makes good sense--and I'm not sure that it does--it's really in poor taste, being so soon on the heels of that tragedy," said Oates.

He said he had also seen the image on Facebook but forgot about it. That is until he saw it on the Smeed billboard and began to receive calls that he was somehow involved in its message.

"It's a very difficult thing for the people that are real Libertarians," said Oates.

Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas also asked that the message be removed, saying that while the billboard was protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, the image "crosses over every moral value that I possess."

"[Nancolas] called me and asked me to take the sign down," said Clements. The image went away on Aug. 2.

Travis Manning, Democratic candidate for Idaho House Seat 10A, the district in which the billboard is located, said the Smeed Foundation put Caldwell on the map for "all the wrong reasons."

"I think people are frustrated as well that the Republican Party officials here in town have not denounced that billboard and try to stop the negative press," said Manning. "They're just taking their lumps and hoping that it goes away."

At his office at a real estate agency in Nampa, Clements gestured to a death threat he had received via email.

"I'm sure that this came from an Obama supporter," said Clements. "I think that they are just deathly afraid that anything like this might hurt his chances for re-election."

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